RACQ LifeFlight – Leading the Charge Down Under

LifeFlight Cover

Over thirty years of serving regional Queensland, Australia, LifeFlight continues to expand to meet the needs of patients in Australia and beyond.

History

RACQ LifeFlight began operations on the Gold Coast, Queensland in Australia’s north in 1981, continuing gradual expansion over the past three decades to become an easily recognizable icon in Queensland’s skies that has become a lifeline to those needing immediate help in the golden hour, treating and transporting over 45,000 people in its years of service in Queensland.

Air Ambulance services in the country’s remote north were mostly limited to service from the Royal Flying Doctors Service (RFDS) would fly to the airport nearest a patient to pick them up and transport them to a hospital that could provide the critical care needed.

Queensland's RACQ LifeFlight operation utilizes a mix of BK117, AW139, AS350 and fixed wing jets to accomplish their domestic and international HEMS mission. Photo by Mark Watterson.
Queensland’s RACQ LifeFlight operation utilizes a mix of BK117, AW139, AS350 and fixed wing jets to accomplish their domestic and international HEMS mission. Photo by Mark Watterson.

 

That all changed for the people of Queensland as a team headed by current CEO Ashley van de Velde and a team of volunteers gathered the funding and resources to start what was known then as the Gold Coast Helicopter Rescue Service (GCHRS).  The service was established to bring rapid rescue response to the many hundreds of pristine beaches frequented by tourists from around the world, along with providing a state of the art search and rescue capability to the far reaches of Queensland that had for too long been without rapid rescue capability. Using helicopters to significantly improve patients chances of survival, GCHRS was able to land directly at remote hospitals or at road accident scenes, lowering the amount of time within the “Golden Hour” that a patient sat waiting for specialized treatment.

In 1992 the service expanded, changing its name to CareFlight Group QLD Limited, increasing its footprint to also service citizens in Southern Queensland and Northern New South Wales.

Sponsorship

The Royal Automobile Club of Queensland (RACQ) became the naming rights sponsor of then CarFlight in 1993, donating vital funds to help keep the service airborne. The partnership between the service and RACQ, still standing today is one of the longest partnerships in Australia for any air ambulance service.

LifeFlight has a long standing relationship with RACQ dating back to 1993. We’re proud to hold one of Australia’s longest sponsorship arrangements which has grown and strengthened over the decades to become a genuine partnership. 

This partnership was forged for a number of reasons, but most obvious for RACQ as the State’s peak motoring organisation was that it helps ensure round the clock peace of mind for our members, just as our roadside assistance does” said Ian Gillespie, Group Chief Executive Officer of LifeFlight’s major sponsor RACQ

During the 1990s, the service looked at other ways to help fund and support the now vital community rescue program by seeking out other key partnerships within Australia’s corporate world. This approach helped to grow into one of Australia’s most expansive air-medical services as it stands today.

 

LifeFlight also has a longstanding partnership with the Queensland Government, the service now providing Queensland Health with more than 120 doctors and support staff on helicopters and fixed wing aircraft across the State. As word of the positive outcomes led by the success of the program, several other sponsors also came on board to assist with the annual costs involved in running the program that included one of the Asia Pacific area’s most successful law firms. Established in Sydney in 1827, MinterEllison operates in Australia, Hong Kong, mainland China, Mongolia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. The service also has several key partnerships with media organizations and other businesses around Queensland.

Expansion

The program that was to become LifeFlight continued their expansion efforts to touch on areas of need that would provide services that were vital to not just their program, but others in the area by looking at what training needs the industry had, which led to the beginning of what is now a premier suite of helicopter training courses, starting their first with a Helicopter Underwater Escape Training (HUET) course. This course, along with many others are now undertaken by thousands of aviation, medical and media professionals annually at LifeFlight’s training center located at Brisbane Airport.

Australia's north to respond in metropolitan and remote rural areas. Photo by Ryan Mason/Collective Magazine.
LifeFlight maintains several bases around the state of Queensland in Australia’s north to respond in metropolitan and remote rural areas. Photo by Ryan Mason/Collective Magazine.

In 1995, LifeFlight identified the need for twin engine helicopters and received the first of six Bell 412 helicopters that would allow the service to travel farther, in all weather and at night, to help those in need.

LifeFlight continued to break new ground at the turn of the century. CareFlight Medical Services, now known as LifeFlight Retrieval Medicine, was established to provide training of doctors and medical crew. Queensland Health awarded the organization the highly sought after contract to provide doctors on both fixed and rotary wing aero-medical services throughout the State.

In 2004, the organization’s fleet expansion continued with the purchase of a Learjet 45 and LifeFlight’s Air Ambulance retrieval service began. In South West Queensland, patient demand saw a part-time base established in Toowoomba in 2006, purchasing a Bell 230 the following year to service the region.

Further acquisitions and growth followed in 2008, with the purchase of a second Learjet and the opening of the LifeFlight Training Academy on the Gold Coast in 2009, the same year a second Bell 412 helicopter was purchased to service the Toowoomba region.

In 2010, the Toowoomba service became a full time operation and a year later the Surat Basin Gas Industry Aeromedical Service (now Surat Gas Aero-Medical Service) was created. The Curtis Island Rotary Wing Aeromedical Service followed and three additional Bell 412 helicopters were acquired to service both these commercial contracts.

Merging for success

In July 2013 LifeFlight took another major step forward, merging with the iconic Sunshine Coast Helicopter Rescue Service (SCHRS) operating out of the Sunshine Coast and Bundaberg. The merger brought together two of Australia’s most capable helicopter rescue services and significantly streamlined air-medical care for patients in the process.

SCHRS brought to LifeFlight a long and illustrious history dating back to 1979. The service began with match funding from the Queensland Government and in 1985 purchased a Bell LongRanger using a $450,000 Government grant. In 1997, the first of two BK117s were purchased and a year later the service expanded north into Bundaberg.

LifeFlight operates several bases with rescue equipped BK117 and Bell 412 helicopters that respond regularly to ships to pickup injured crew or passengers to transport them to advanced medical care. Photo by Mark Watterson.
LifeFlight operates several bases with rescue equipped BK117 and Bell 412 helicopters that respond regularly to ships to pickup injured crew or passengers to transport them to advanced medical care. Photo by Mark Watterson.

The decision to merge the two iconic charities combined a mutual desire to improve patient outcomes and maximise service delivery. Long-time partner RACQ supported the merge by extending its naming rights sponsorship to include both helicopters. Together the merged entity offered the community a combined 66 years of experience.

In 2014, the Air Ambulance division acquired a new Bombardier Challenger CL-604 and added two new AW139 helicopters; marking the first time in the service’s history that a new, rather than repurposed aircraft was purchased.

Another major acquisition in the same year was the purchase of a Thales Reality H Full Flight Simulator (FFS,) also the first AW139 full motion flight simulator certified for use in Australia. The 139 simulator purchase also serving the training requirements of the rapidly increasing number of AW139 operators in Australia and the Asia Pacific area.

The following year, LifeFlight continued their growth by reaching agreement to merge their services with Mount Isa-based North Queensland Helicopter Rescue Service (NQ Rescue) while simultaneously launching a new base at Brisbane Airport. The services Brisbane and Mount Isa bases expanding LifeFlight’s footprint significantly to include 41 council regions across the three states of Queensland, New South Wales and the Northern Territory.

As the service celebrated its 35th anniversary in 2016, the final name change to the current name of the service, LifeFlight, was completed.

The final piece of the funding for the program was launched in 2017 as the service created the LifeFlight Foundation, formed to support the growing needs of the organization through a range of different fundraising programs. The Foundation raises nearly 30% of annual operating costs to ensure the service can continue to function on a long term basis.

Fleet

LifeFlight currently operates thirteen helicopters and two jets in their growing fleet. In 2014, LifeFlight acquired the first two of its three Leonardo AW139 helicopters. The purchase of the state of the art helicopters was made possible by government funding of the service and the continued support of the community who donates to keep the service flying. The AW139 was selected by LifeFlight for its safety design features, performance capabilities, state-of-the-art cockpit and avionics system, and a much larger working space for the medical crew in the rear of the aircraft which life flight believes is tailor-made to suit the demanding aero-medical environment their crews work in. The first of LifeFlight’s first AW139 helicopters began operating out of the Brisbane Airport Base in September 2015.

In addition to the two Learjet 45’s owned and operated by LifeFlight for air medical retrieval flights, LifeFlight owns and operates five Bell 412s and one Bell 230 and an AS350 in addition to the larger AW139 fleet, each of the services 412 helicopters have been custom-configured to carry up to four crew and two patients with the capability of taking additional non-critical patients on board if needed for mass casualty evacuation for patients still ambulatory.

Three AW139's were purchased by LifeFlight to increase both range and capacity along with providing crews with advanced flight safety equipment offered by the state of the art Leonardo Helicopters AW139. Image by Ryan Mason/Collective Magazine.
Three AW139’s were purchased by LifeFlight to increase both range and capacity along with providing crews with advanced flight safety equipment offered by the state of the art Leonardo Helicopters AW139. Image by Ryan Mason/Collective Magazine.

Each of LifeFlight’s Bell 412’s are winch equipped for rescues conducted in mountainous or inaccessible areas where landings are not possible that include evacuating injured passengers and crew aboard ships passing along the coast of Queensland.

LifeFlight’s Bell 412 fleet is fitted with NVG compliant cockpit lighting modifications that greatly enhances mission safety and patient outcomes during night operations, especially in the remote outback areas of Australia that offer little to no ambient light sources in some cases. In addition to the industry leading safety and rescue equipment aboard each helicopter, each 412 also carries a wide range of world-class medical equipment on board with additional storage for items needed for specific missions kept in the tail boot locker.

The increasingly uncommon Bell 230 belonging to the service operates out of LifeFlight’s Mount Isa Base and is equipped to deal with both trauma and medical patients during medical evacuation flights in the remote northern area of Australia.

LifeFlight’s two BK117 aircraft operate out of the services Sunshine Coast and Bundaberg bases and are used for rapid response medical emergencies, inter-hospital transfers, neonatal retrievals and search and rescue operations regularly.

Although the BK117 is waning in popularity in other parts of the world for air medical work, the BK is still actively used across Australia and still a popular choice as an EMS helicopter due to its rear opening clam shell doors that assist with the easy loading and unloading patients with a drop leg stretcher. Both LifeFlight’s BK117 aircraft (A B2 model at the Sunshine Coast and C1 at the Bundaberg base) are also equipped with rescue winches capable of winching two adults simultaneously, in addition to 30kg of medical equipment when needed.

On the pilot side, the BK117’s are equipped with a digital autopilot and flight director system, making it possible for them to be flown by only one pilot, which is becoming more and more prevalent in air medical operations in Australia, who have slowly started to transition from dual pilot operations in the air medical operations field. Also fitted are advanced weather radar and two Garmin 430 GPS receivers with GPS navigation and instrument approach capabilities.

LifeFlight’s AS350, in previous years served as a frontline medical helicopter configured to launch with a single pilot, doctor, paramedic, and provisions for one patient. Today however, it is used for training and check ride flights of LifeFlight pilots and crew, particularly in the area of gaining night vision goggle (NVG) certification and currency. The AS350 is also used for educational purposes, including RACQ’s ‘Streets Above’ safety program for school children.

The AS350 is still considered an active asset available for emergency use and can also be equipped with a winch for rescue missions due to its compact size and single engine. The helicopter can be airborne in under five minutes and can safely land in small areas that are too tight for the larger aircraft in the fleet, making it still a worthwhile asset for the service.

Safety Standards

To LifeFlight, quality and safety is not just a catchphrase but rather a company-wide responsibility involving every employee. Their operational and technical staff are among the highest qualified in the Australian industry.

LifeFlight has a positive internal culture, cultivated, and developed over the past 35 years. Showing their commitment to safety is deeply ingrained in the organization at all levels, evidenced by their impeccable aircraft safety record and zero accident history.  The combined maintenance experience of the Lifeflight team now in excess of over 100 years of operational aviation experience.

Safety management system

A key component to the success of safe operations for LifeFlight is utilization of the operations Safety Management System (SMS,) which provides a common understanding of the definitions and elements of the SMS. LifeFlight utilizes the Air Maestro® web-based software application to enhance the safety, compliance and efficiency of their personnel and operational environment. The Air Maestro® system enabling an open reporting conduit for every team member to identify, report and improve the systems and procedures at LifeFlight. Their team crediting their integrated Environmental Health and Safety Management System (EHSMS) as the guide to their evident safety culture that motivates each team member to continue maintaining their industry leading accident avoidance rate. LifeFlight’s EHSMS is aligned with Australian industry recognized best practice and international standards including ISO 9001 – Quality Management Systems, ISO 31000 Risk Management Systems and ISO 14001 Environmental Management Systems.

Maintenance

LifeFlight is a Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) approved maintenance facility that operates an in-house engineering facility at Archerfield Airport in the state capital of Queensland, Brisbane that supports the rotary and fixed wing aircraft in the operation supported by on-site line maintenance staff that are also augmented by other facilities located at Brisbane Airport, Toowoomba, Townsville, Sunshine Coast, Bundaberg, and Roma in Queensland’s north.

Lifeflight operates a state of the art maintenance facility at its Brisbane based headquarters, along with qualified maintenance engineers being stationed at each of LifeFlight's bases around the region. LifeFlight Photo.
Lifeflight operates a state of the art maintenance facility at its Brisbane based headquarters, along with qualified maintenance engineers being stationed at each of LifeFlight’s bases around the region. LifeFlight Photo.

LifeFlight’s engineering team maintain the operation’s aircraft to the highest level of safety that allows them to achieve a very high level of aircraft availability on both rotary and fixed wing sides of the operation that they credit to their highly qualified technicians and specialists dedication to the mission and use of industry best practice systems.

Emergency Coordination Center

The center of LifeFlight’s life saving work revolves around the round-the-clock coordination center, staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days per week, staffed by aviation and medical coordinators specializing in medical management, emergency response, commercial and military aviation disciplines, and emergency retrieval medicine. LifeFlight’s coordination center is the operational hub that provides the coordination of the organization’s extensive fleet of air ambulance assets around the three states and international destinations aircraft may be operating.

A typical day for the staff of LifeFlight’s coordinators could include managing the activation and tasking of rescue helicopters and air ambulance jets, securing landing permits for international flight destination, flight planning, obtaining customs and immigration clearances for aircraft and staff that are dispatched to international pick up locations for medical evacuation, ground ambulance coordination, scheduling the refueling of aircraft and tracking the flights of the many LifeFlight helicopter and fixed wing assets that can be in operation 24/7.

LifeFlight’s coordination center also provides Telephone Medical Advice Services (TMAS) on behalf of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) and is the point of contact for all Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) class ships within the Australian Search and Rescue Region who could require medical advice at sea.

Management Structure & Executive Leadership

The executive structure that ensures the ongoing funding and operation of LifeFlight is headed by CEO Ashley van de Velde who envisaged what the LifeFlight program would become today. A dogged and determined attitude along with the help of many volunteers and what has become a small army of medical, aviation and administration professionals help van de Velde continue to build on the original mission he started in 1981 as a volunteer crewman on the helicopter while a full time police officer with the Queensland Police, assigned to the water police squad.

As one of Australia’s most experienced CEO’s in the complex aeromedical industry, van de Veld is a master at developing solutions in challenging situations, helped by five non-executive directors and a non-executive vice chairman and chairman to ensure LifeFlight’s long-term sustainability. Chairman of LifeFlight, F Rob Borbidge, who became Chairman of LifeFlight in July 2013 after the company merged with the Sunshine Coast Helicopter Rescue Service was the 35th Premier of Queensland. Borbidge led a minority National Liberal Coalition Government from 1996 to 1998 and served in senior Cabinet posts, serving as Deputy Leader and Leader of the Opposition party before retiring in 2001 after serving more than 20 years as the Honorable Member for Surfers Paradise in the State Government.

Helicopter Rescue Services

Every year LifeFlight’s iconic blue and yellow helicopters help thousands of sick and injured patients. With a Critical Care Doctor on board each flight, LifeFlight’s rescue helicopters are regularly sent to serious accidents, where early medical intervention can often be the difference between life and death.

Crews are typically made up of a Pilot, Critical Care Doctor, Aircrewman, and Intensive Care Flight Paramedic or Nurse who can be in the air within minutes of being tasked to a mission. Most missions are performed by the organizations eight helicopters based out of Mount Isa, Bundaberg, Sunshine Coast, Toowoomba and Brisbane bases.

LifeFlight Leonardo Helicopters AW139's can frequently be seen flying over the city of Brisbane, enroute to one of the cities level 1 trauma centers. Image by Ryan Mason/Collective Magazine.
LifeFlight Leonardo Helicopters AW139’s can frequently be seen flying over the city of Brisbane, enroute to one of the cities level 1 trauma centers. Image by Ryan Mason/Collective Magazine.

Unlike many community based search and rescue or air ambulance services, LifeFlight also services a commercial contractor, providing aeromedical helicopter services to a consortium of oil and gas providers in Australia’s northeast that both benefits the local communities by providing work, but also provides residents emergency care, every day of the year while helping offset the operational expenses of the entire LifeFlight program. Currently, LifeFlight has one such service in operation: The Surat Gas Aero-Medical Service, that operates two helicopters out of bases located in Roma and Toowoomba that LifeFlight calls its ‘profit for purpose’ commercial enterprise. This particular service helps fund the charitable side of LifeFlight services while surplus profit from the ‘profit for purpose’ side is used to ensure that each helicopter remains on standby 24 hours a day, every day of the year.

Air Ambulance Retrievals

In more than 10 years of Air Ambulance operation, LifeFlight has repatriated over 1,600 patients in need of medical care throughout Australia, the Asia Pacific and beyond via LifeFlight’s dedicated fleet of medically configured Air Ambulance jets. LifeFlight’s fleet of Learjets and in-house aviation and medical crews make up Australia’s only fully integrated and dedicated jet air ambulance service.

As a leader in the industry, LifeFlight will work directly with most major insurance and travel assistance companies, hospitals, governments, the cruise line industry, embassies, administrative bodies, as well as travelers and their families for the sole purpose of getting patients to the right care as quickly as possible and providing them with the finest aeromedical care in flight.

Each jets carries a critical care doctor and intensive care flight nurse on board all flights, and can respond to both domestic and international medical evacuations in as little as 60 minutes.

LifeFlight Training Academy

LifeFlight’s state-of-the-art Training Academy allows external customers and their own staff to train in a practical environment with a virtual reality flight simulator and training provided by highly qualified instructors.

As an Australian Registered Training Organization (RTO,) LifeFlight can provide training specifically tailored to an organization’s needs, either on or off campus to conduct any of the academy’s CASA approved Training Courses offered that meet current and projected international and national training program requirements. LifeFlight endeavor to provide course materials and practical simulation system training to reflect the environment and situations that students may experience in their aviation workplace at the academy, making every effort to add realism to the training offered.

One of the LifeFlight AW139's arrives at Princess Juliana Hospital in central Brisbane, Australia. Image by Ryan Mason/Collective Magazine.
One of the LifeFlight AW139’s arrives at Princess Juliana Hospital in central Brisbane, Australia. Image by Ryan Mason/Collective Magazine.

Instructors

All LifeFlight instructors are highly qualified with operational aviation experience Instructors come with both military and civilian experience in a wide variety of Aviation and Helicopter emergency medical and rescue mission profiles including Search and Rescue, Winching, Air Crewman, Rescue Crewman, and Marine Safety Survival Technicians.

Training Equipment

LifeFlight utilizes purpose built Aircraft Underwater Escape Trainers (AUET) to simulate helicopter ditching situations.  The AUET is not meant to replicate any particular type of helicopter, but requires students to operate a variety of exit systems, enhancing the abilities of students to retain underwater egress skill sets that include opening hinged and sliding doors, jettisoning doors underwater, and pushing out exit windows to affect a successful escape as they would in the real world. Students are also required to locate exits and egress while wearing blackout masks, and perform secondary exit egresses.

Two LifeFlight instructors are in the water every course to handle water safety measures should any student develop difficulties during their evacuation training, with the added ability of LifeFlight underwater training devices having the ability to be safely raised from the water within 5 seconds if needed as an additional safety measure.

Simulators                                                                      

Located within the LifeFlight Training Academy at Brisbane Airport, the training center also operates the Thales LifeFlight Simulation Center. The center provides a customer-focused environment for flight simulation training in a dedicated facility featuring the first Thales-built Reality H AW139 Level D Full Flight Simulator, an innovation for AW139 aircrew training.

Specifically designed for oil and gas, search and rescue, emergency services helicopter operators, the Reality H AW139 Level D Full Flight Simulator provides outstanding realism for mission training. Compliant to Level D CASA/EASA regulation requirements, the Reality H AW139 Level D Full Flight Simulator enables pilots to maintain their qualification required by regulatory authorities that features a hexaline electric motion system and 235° by 80° visual display.

Pilots using the simulator are able to train in the no risk environment of a simulator on training items such as annual recurrent training requirements, type and class conversions, both initial and recurrent IFR training, or initial and recurrent NVG training needs.

Statistics

In LifeFlight’s over thirty-six years of operation, the organization has recorded over 49,000 missions flown and lives saved by the more than 50 pilots, 130 doctors and nurses currently employed by LifeFlight have performed services that have contributed to saving lives all over Queensland, interstate and in many overseas countries. The 2016-17 year was a record year for LifeFlight air crews, who assisted in a total of 5252 lives being saved through the direct treatment and transportation of patients by the organizations fixed wing and rotary assets.

LifeFlight AW139's feature the latest in advanced flight management, along with capacity for the maximum amount of advanced life saving technology aboard the helicopter. Photo by Mark Watterson.
LifeFlight AW139’s feature the latest in advanced flight management, along with capacity for the maximum amount of advanced life saving technology aboard the helicopter. Image by Mark Watterson.

Achievements in the LifeFlight program were not limited to flight crews alone, as LifeFlight’s engineering team also performed over 25,000 hours of scheduled and unscheduled aircraft maintenance during the calendar year recorded in 2016-17

From rapid response to inter-facility transfers, the LifeFlight team of more than 400 staff of aviation crew, support staff and more than one hundred doctors and nurses are a lifeline to the people of both suburban and regional Queensland in Australia. LifeFlight’s 13 rescue helicopters and three air ambulance jets continue to see an increase in calls each year, which has driven their continued expansion which appears to show little sign of slowing down as the organization continues to look for avenues that strengthen its position in the air medical and search and rescue field to continue to find more ways to serve the residents of Queensland.

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